Last post for military tattoos: recruiters reject candidates with visible body art

Aspiring soldier turned down for having four-centimeter marking on wrist

Aspiring soldier J. C. displays the small tattoo that is preventing her from sitting army recruitment tests.
Aspiring soldier J. C. displays the small tattoo that is preventing her from sitting army recruitment tests.SANTI BURGOS (EL PAÍS)

J. C. was born 25 years ago in Getafe, in the industrial belt of Madrid. Her parents still live there: her father is a mechanic, is disabled, and works for ONCE, the national blind people's association; her mother is a hairdresser by trade but is currently unemployed and works as a housewife.

J. C. has always been drawn to the military lifestyle. She almost joined the ranks seven years ago, when the army was short on recruits. Instead her family convinced her to go to college and last June she graduated from the Carlos III University with a law degree. Every morning, she attends an academy that prepares students to enter the armed forces. And every afternoon, she spends two hours training in the gym, gearing up for the strenuous physical tests. Her dream is to be an officer in the Military Legal Corps, and she believes that to do this, it's best to start as an entry-level soldier.

With her advanced degree, driving license and English certificate, J. C. is more than qualified for one of the 1,500 placements in the army and navy that the Defense Ministry is making available this year. But she has run into an obstacle that is paradoxically both miniscule and insurmountable: a black-ink, four centimeter by two centimeter tattoo on her left wrist.

This past June 17, the academy where she trained sent out a notice through Spain's official state gazette. J. C. read it carefully, although she was already familiar with most of its content. But in section 3.3i, which outlines the conditions for being able to sit the public exams required for military hopefuls, she noticed something surprising. One requirement stipulated that prospective candidates must not possess "tattoos that contain language or images contrary to constitutional values, that deface the uniform, that could undermine discipline or the image of the armed forces in any of its branches, that reflect obscene motifs or incite sexual, ethnic or religious discrimination."

If the army sacked every soldier with tattoos, barracks would be left empty

Up to point, she had nothing to worry about. Her tattoo consists of a rotated capital E with a line that crosses it diagonally. Nothing that could be construed as racist, sexist, or anti-constitutional.

But the announcement continued: "Likewise, tattoos that are visible while wearing any of the various types of uniforms worn by the armed forces are not permitted."

J. C. consulted a few soldiers she had met at the gym - some of whom had flashy tattoos on their arms and legs. They tried to reassure her: long before they became fashionable among civilians, many soldiers, such as members of the Spanish Legion, used tattoos as a form of self-identification. If the army sacked every soldier with tattoos, some barracks would be left practically empty.

But J. C. wasn't sure. The summer uniform is short-sleeved, and her wrist is impossible to hide. She decided to consult the Defense Ministry via the email address on its website. "I have read the current rules for army and navy troops... I have a tattoo on my wrist. It is a small (around four centimeters) capital letter, and I would like to know if this prevents me from attending the recruitment drive."

One lawyer believes the requirement may be unconstitutional

The reply came a week later: "Dear Sir [sic]: In regard to your inquiry, please be advised that you cannot have any tattoos (the size is not specified) that are visible in any type of uniform (either winter or summer)."

So J. C. went to a cosmetic treatment center to see how much it would cost to get the tattoo removed. Around 1,200 euros and around five weeks. Too expensive and too late.

A Defense Ministry spokeswoman said last week that the ban on offensive tattoos stems from the disciplinary code, and that the ban on all visible tattoos is derived from the "rule of uniformity," although current soldiers who already have tattoos will not be forced to have them removed.

Previous army and navy recruitment drives have not imposed this requirement, and a lack of visible tattoos is not a prerequisite for joining the Civil Guard, which has military status.

The Military Career law and the Troop and Naval law both list the conditions that need to be fulfilled to join the military: prospective candidates must be Spanish (or from one of a select few Latin American counties), between 18 and 29 years of age, have no criminal record, possess the required academic qualifications and pass the selection tests. There is no mention of anything related to physical appearance.

Mariano Casado, a lawyer and director of the Unified Association of Spanish Military Personnel, believes the requirement may be unconstitutional. She notes that article 30 of the Constitution recognizes Spaniards' "right and duty" to defend Spain, while article 103 states that employment by the government will be determined "in accordance with principles of merit and ability." No recruitment drive can impose requirements that are not under the law, he warns.

J. C. gazes down at the tattoo she's had since she was 19. She claims that the E means error. But surely the gravest error of all isn't hers.

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